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BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Years With Carlos Fuentes BY KAREN OLSSON THE YEARS WITH LAURA DIAZ By Carlos Fuentes Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 518 pages. $26. Athird of the way through Carlos Fuentes’ latest novel, The Years With Laura Diaz, Artemio Cruz shows up. The year is 1932, and Laura Diaz and her lover are at a society party in Mexico City. Suddenly Cruz, the anti-hero of Fuentes’ 1962 novel The Death of Artemio Cruz, arrives with his mistress. He doesn’t say anything, just whispers to his mistress while others at the party gossip about him. Then he is gone: His appearance seems to have been staged more for the benefit of the knowing reader than anything else, underlining the link between that previous novel and this one. All of Fuentes’ novels are conceptually related to one another. Twenty years ago the author conceived of a master scheme encompassing his fictional works, both those he had already written and the ones he intended to write. Yet there is a stronger connection between Laura Diaz and Artemio Cruz, as the author himself acknowledged in a 1994 interview. Speaking of the novel five years before its publication in Spanish, presumably before he had written it, Fuentes said that, “In a certain way it is a companion novel to The Death of Artemio Cruz. The characters are from the same period, but the story is told by a woman, a point of view very different from that of Artemio Cruz as a man.” That story, while differing in the particulars, is the same one told in Artemio Cruz: Fuentes’ history of twentieth century Mexico. He funnels that history through his central characters, Cruz and Diaz, their lives determined by \(and at least in the case of their events and movements, especially the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 and its aftermath. In each novel, the idealisms of the first part of the century falter \(and young, idealiscompromised, and violent visions of human nature and society take root in their wake. While Cruz, a ruthless business mogul who as a young man profited from the spoils of war, embodies the worst of the latter-day values in his eponymous novel, Laura Diaz plays a less active but more complicated role in hers. She doesn’t literally do much besides grow up \(on her grandfather’s plantation and then in Verand have affairs. Then, late in the book, at age 60, she takes up photographyfittingly enough, since for the reader this is what she has done all along, serving as a lens, framing the lives of those around her. It is a series of men who take up most of the frame: her grandfather Don Felipe Kelsen, a German socialist turned plantation owner; her older half-brother Santiago, who is killed for his activities on the eve of the Revolution; her husband Juan Diego Lopez Greene, a labor leader from the provinces who finds himself making more and more compromises to maintain his influence in the post-Revolution regimes; Orlando Ximenez, a mysterious, high-society friend of Santiago’s; Jorge Maura, a Spanish Republican in exile; Harry Jaffe, an American screenwriter; and Laura’s sons. In a sense, then, it is still a man’s story in spite of the intended female point of view. Yet ultimately the book belongs more to “the years” than to Laura Diaz or her men. No single person presides over this book, as Artemio Cruz did in Death. That novel gave us figure and ground while Laura Diaz is quite self-consciously mural-like, crowding its pages with as many people and events as any work by Diego Rivera who also appears as a character in the book, befriended by Laura Diaz. This novel is also an excavation, as Fuentes teases out strands and fragments of political history. “Juan Francisco taught the son he coddled about the glorious history of the workers movement against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz,” writes Fuentes in a somewhat clunky effort to tell his coddled reader a few things about the history of workers’ movements in Mexico: After 1867, when Maximilian’s em pire fell, Benito Jucirez found himself face to face, right here in Mexico City, with well-organized groups of anarchists who had secretly come in with the Hungarian, Austrian, Czech, and French troops who supported the Habsburg archduke. They stayed here when the French withdrew and Juarez had Maximilian shot. Those anarchists had grouped artisans into Resistance Societies. In 1870 the Grand Circle of Mexican Workers was constituted, then in 1876 a secret Bakunin group, The Social, celebrated the first general workers congress in the Mexican Republic. Facts and dates such as these are offered up periodically, and along with Laura’s men, they block out a version of history weighted toward Europe and all things cultural. Whether he is writing about nineteenth century anarchists who end up in Mexico, or Spaniards in exile in Mexico after the Spanish Civil War, or Hollywood holed up in Cuernavaca in the ’50s, Fuentes romanticizes left intellectuals even as he sends them into defeat or exile or worse. He dotes on them, these disappointed or doomed men whom Laura takes as lovers. At times, his Mexico verges on becoming a retirement colony for failed socialists. Jorge Maura, the Spanish exile, seems to speak for them all, and maybe for the author, when he condemns the first half of the twentieth century, “which was going to be the paradise of progress and instead was the hell of degradation. Not only the age of fascist and Stalinist horror but of the horror that those who fought against evil could not save themselves from, no one was exempted…. Starting with us, evil ceased to be a possibility and became an obligation.” When Fuentes writes about instances of evil, thoughabout Nazi atrocities or about a mayor in Civil War Spain who orders his traitorous daughter’s death by firing squadhe is less convincing than when he writes about discussions of evil. 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 19, 2001